Voice: Alan Berube

Alan Berube is senior fellow and research director for the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

“In a way, the racial inequality is posing a real threat to the future economic viability of the state if that under-18 population in 20 years is really the bulk of your workforce.”

My sense is the Latino population in Colorado was much smaller 30 years ago than it is today, that the vast majority of the growth has occurred over the last 30 years. And that much of that growth is among Mexican immigrants, many of whom come to the United States to work in low-skill jobs. They are working construction in fast growing areas of the country like Colorado and the Intermountain West. So you have an influx on the Latino end of workers who may be less educated than their predecessors, whatever Latinos were there in 1980. Essentially you are looking at a somewhat different population today than you were in 1980. With whites and blacks, it’s a little tougher to say why that might be the case. I do know that the Colorado economy in 1980 was much more based on the extraction industry than it is today. That a lot of the growth in the state economically has accrued to highly skilled people in industries like finance, telecommunications, energy. Mining is energy, but so is the green economy and a lot of the research jobs that are coming along with that. The state has attracted in from other parts of the country a fairly skilled population. You’ve got brain gain going on from the Midwest and the Northeast, people who are attracted to these high skill industries and to the quality of life they find in Colorado.

Alan Berubea

Alan Berubea

So much of that growth has benefited highly-skilled, high earning populations and there really hasn’t been attendant growth in jobs that are accessible to people at lower skill levels and wages that go along with those jobs. I guess I think both about the composition of the populations and the broader changes in the Colorado economy. In a way, Colorado was by virtue of its older economy a more equal place than the rest of the United States. But it’s just picked up in droves these elements of the national economy and it’s now more like a caricature of the United States in terms of the imbalance between the high end and the low end – where the high end is disproportionately employing highly educated whites and the low is probably employing disproportionately, less educated Latinos and African Americans.

There are definitely demographic features of minority households particularly black households that have changed relative to white households over the past three decades – particularly the rise of the one parent household among African Americans where you max out at one earner. And the two parent household among whites where more often than not you have two earners in those households. In part it’s about how many adults you have and the income generating power these different households have.

You can see it show up in the educational challenges that a state like Colorado is facing. You’ve got maybe a little less so than other parts of the country, but you still have on balance an aging white population and a young minority population. There are only so many white people you can pull from the rest of the country to help adjust for that imbalance and the challenge it is bringing. So more and more of your under-18 population, school-aged population, is brown and black. And they are growing up in households that are more economically disadvantaged which all the research shows places a negative strain on their educational potential.

In a way the racial inequality is posing a real threat to the future economic viability of the state if that under 18-population in 20 years is really the bulk of your workforce.

The high school graduation rate over time mirrors a national trend where whites were way ahead of blacks and Latinos on that 20, 30 years ago. Whites being at 90 percent. Their rate hasn’t had as far to come as blacks and Latinos. But blacks and Latinos certainly have made progress there. But the changes in the economy generally are making post secondary education the real dividing line between economic success and stagnation.

I would be surprised if there are any major regions of the country that are bucking this trend. If you recognize certain things about Colorado that make it stand out as having gone from a more equal place than average to a less equal place than average, some places the inequalities haven’t grown to the extent they have grown in Colorado, but they are probably growing everywhere.

You are looking at income inequality, but of course that is highly correlated with wealth inequality. I think we’ve seen from the downturn given its prolonged length especially, and the fact that it was rooted in the housing market, the knockout effects of living from paycheck to paycheck, not having an emergency stockpile of savings from which you can reside. It’s hard to ride out a recession that has been prolonged as this one, but certainly families that have been earning more for a long period of time are much better prepared to weather this.

The other thing economic statistics from the recession remind us of is that financial capital is one thing you need to ride out a recession, but human capital is probably more important. And that workers with bachelor degrees have unemployment rates throughout the course of the recession that have been one-half to one-third of those experienced by those people with only a high school education.

It’s certainly true that the safety net today is much more work-based than it was 40 years ago when it was really AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children). Access to traditional welfare, the level of benefits available, those have declined sharply. In the context of a recession, it leaves a lot of people who can’t find work because they aren’t a lot of jobs kind of hung out to dry.

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